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International Relations and Human Rights Observatory


Belarusian government discriminates against athletes ahead of Tokyo Olympics

(Diálogo Político) The participation of Belarusian athletes in the next Olympic Games under their own flag is at serious risk, although they could present themselves under the Olympic flag, as independent athletes, as will happen with Russian athletes. That would be a very hard blow to Lukashenko's image at a time when demonstrations are once again taking over the streets after winter.
By Ignacio E. Hutin

Aleksandr Lukashenko

(Diálogo Político) The presidential elections in Belarus are not over yet, despite the fact eight months have already passed. President Aleksandr Lukashenko claimed, officially, over 80% of the votes last August, which would allow him to stay in power for a sixth term, but not many believed in those numbers. Since then there have been mass protests facing savage police repression, more than 30 thousand people have been arrested for participating in the demonstrations, at least 7 have been killed, more than a thousand cases of torture have been registered in detention centers and those members of the opposition who are not imprisoned, are exiled in neighboring countries.

Now that Lukashenko needs repression to stay in power, sport victories are a great way to improve his image and his country’s. That is why the suspension from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to the Belarusian National Olympic Committee (NOC RB) on March 8 was a serious blow, especially when only a few months remain until the postponed Olympic Games in Tokyo.

Darya DomrachevaLast February, Víktor Lukashenko, Aleksandr's son, became president of the NOC RB, but the IOC did not consider his election valid because the leader already carried a sanction for discrimination against Belarusian athletes. Until now they have been detained or deprived of the possibility of training athletes such as the skier Darya Domracheva (top winner of Olympic gold medals for her country, with four), the basketball player Elena Levchenko, the decathlete and Olympic silver medalist Andrei Krauchanka and the European champion marathoner Volha Mazuronak, among others. Their crime, like that of so many others, was to speak out openly against massive repression and arbitrary detentions.

Anatoly Kotov is a former Secretary General of the NOC RB and currently represents the Sports Solidarity Foundation of Belarus, an organization that promoted the sanctions for discrimination against athletes before the IOC. In an interview with the Human Rights Foundation, Kotov explained that the only positive thing that his country can show to the world right now is sports results. "That's why Lukashenko privatizes victories, as if he were the only person to thank, the only responsible," he says, adding that "it is very painful for him to realize that athletes do not agree with what is happening in the country. The television channels, which are an instrument of government propaganda, now blame the athletes and accuse them of being traitors, of personally betraying Lukashenko”.

It was the same organization chaired by Kotov that pressured the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) to change the host for its world championship, which was to be held in Minsk between May and June this year. IIHF President René Fasel met with Lukashenko in December to secure the release of political prisoners in exchange for hosting the championship. This was very important to the Belarusian president because hockey is his favorite sport and one of the most popular in his country. Nevertheless there was no agreement.

Meanwhile, the president of the national ice hockey association is Dmitry Baskov, former coach of Nikolai Lukashenko, Aleksandr's youngest son. Baskov is very close to the president, which is why he led a group that persecuted protesters and ended up murdering a man in November. “He felt the need to show loyalty to Lukashenko. We all know that he is directly related to this murder, but the Justice and the state authorities do not investigate,”says Kotov. The IOC banned Baskov, part of the National Olympic Committee, from attending the games in Tokyo.

Today the participation of Belarusian athletes in the next games under their own flag is at serious risk, although they could present themselves under the Olympic flag, as independent athletes, as will happen with Russian athletes. That would be a very hard blow to Lukashenko's image at a time when demonstrations are once again taking over the streets after winter. But if that does not happen and the IOC decides to lift the sanctions, how could athletes proudly represent a country that discriminates against them, a State that sanctions and persecutes them for the mere fact of condemning violence? In Belarus there is no independence between government and sport, and both sports facilities and athlete funding are almost entirely state-dependent. That is why it is so difficult that the government will not use elite competition as propaganda.

Large events can be an opportunity to modernize countries, not only in terms of infrastructure, but also in respect of human rights. The IOC can influence through sanctions, monitoring or at the time of choosing hosts, but its policies have so far been highly ambiguous. That is why the United States has already threatened to boycott the 2022 Winter Games, which will be held in Beijing, in response to the Chinese state's systematic persecution of the Uyghur Turkic minority.

Kotov says that the best way to prevent the use of large events as propaganda is solidarity and the joint effort of society, inside and outside the countries where human rights are violated. The Belarusian says that “in 2020 everyone saw that the dictatorship in our country only understands cruelty, that the law is dead and that those who do not agree with Lukashenko are punished. That is why we need to keep athletes and Belarus as a topic in the international media." Maybe that visibility will allow elite athletes to compete freely, without persecution or discrimination, and proudly representing their country.

Ignacio E. Hutin
Ignacio E. Hutin
Advisory Councelor
Master in International Relations (University of Salvador, 2021), Graduate in Journalism (University of Salvador, 2014), specialized in Leadership in Humanitarian Emergencies (National Defense University, 2019) and studied photography (ARGRA, 2009). He is a focused in Eastern Europe, post-Soviet Eurasia and the Balkans. He received a scholarship from the Finnish State to carry out studies related to the Arctic at the University of Lapland (2012). He is the author of the books Saturn (2009), Deconstruction: Chronicles and Reflections from Post-Communist Eastern Europe (2018), Ukraine/Donbass: A Renewed Cold War (2021), and Ukraine: Chronicle from the Frontlines (2021).

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